It would have been folk singer, Harry Chapin’s forty fifth birthday on December 7, 1987. But a tragic car-truck collision on the Long Island Expressway in 1981 ended this young artist -citizen’s supercharged drive to end the specter of Hunger on Earth. Chapin’s legacy is growing rapidly and the reasons are not obscure. Among artists, his was almost a lone and relentless voice in the Seventies to raise public consciousness about the Hungry in America and around the world. He did over one hundred benefit concerts a year, not just to his life’s crusade, but too many other citizen and artistic groups. I would come upon more than several groups whose yearly budget relied heavily on Harry Chapin benefit concerts — from the alternative monthly, Michigan Voice, to an anti-hunger group, Long Island Cares, Inc.
In between his good works, Chapin would be calling almost every major singer in America to enlist his or her efforts against Hunger. He started the first Hungerthons in the mid-Seventies. These were twenty-four hour radio shows. They educated many listeners to his belief that Hunger was not a shortage of food but a shortage of efficient and equitable social organization.
I occasionally would chance upon Chapin at airports. Invariably he would be running for the gate — always running was Harry. By day he would lobby Congress successfully to establish a Presidential Commission on World Hunger, on which he served
between 1978-79; then he would fly to New Orleans or Detroit for a concert and then back to Congress the next day.
After Harry’s passing, the starving masses in Ethiopia made Hunger into a major cause celebre for entertainers. “We are the World” was written and the fund-raising drives were on. More and more of the singers and other artists remembered Harry’s persistent telephone calls. More and more of them agreed to act.
Then, on the evening of December 7th, they gathered before a packed Carnegie Hall in New York City to pay a gigantic tribute to what the nearby Hard Rock Cafe called “the great singer-songwriter, humanitarian Harry Chapin.”
It was like a great reunion: Harry Belaforite, The Smothers Brothers, Pete Seeger, Graham Nash, Judy Collins, Edward Villella, Pat Benatar, Kenny Rogers, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bruce Springsteen and others. With Harry’s brothers, Tom and Stephen, they sang “Taxi”, and “Cat’s in the Cradle.” They sang the songs of sense and the songs of uplife.
The finale belonged to Springsteen who, given the audience’s mounting “Bruuuuce” chant, could have upstaged everybody with one or two favorites. Instead, he showed his sterling character by speaking about Harry’s impact on him, while strumming his guitar, and singing “Remember When the Music.” He enriched the evening instead of overshadowing it.
My words that evening selected three quotations from Chapin and their message. The first was his self-description as “a philosophical pessimist and a practical idealist.” This approach helped insulate him from debilitating disappointment and discouragement. It let him rebound from obstructions and leap forward from breakthroughs.
Second, Chapin discerned the focus and fulfillment that comes from external caring. He said often that “If there’s something you believe in, beyond yourself, that allows you to go out and function, that’s a wonderful thing to have.”
Finally, Chapin never confused symptoms of tragedies with their causes. Yes, he sought to alleviate the suffering of hungry people; but he kept his eye on the ‘whys’ of Hunger, as in these words: “Feeding hungry people is important in the short run, but in the long run you’ve got to realize that powerful forces are creating those hungry people. These people don’t just choose to starve. Our job is to look at those forces and deal with them.”
The evening at Carnegie Hall brought together Harry Chapin’s community. The movement he started, now led by his wife Sandy, continues to spread and grow. Live on, Harry, live on, so that your impoverished fellow humans may survive.